More Progressive Punitivism, the Manafort Edition: Conservatives, Maoists, and the SCUM Manifesto

Image result for manafort rikers This morning on Twitter, Shaun King took on the schadenfreude festival that surrounded the reports that Paul Manafort–perhaps the shrewdest collaborator with the Russians in the context of the 2016 election and an unscrupulous white collar crime offender–is going to be in solitary at Rikers. King said:

I see people excited to see Paul Manafort sent to Rikers Island and put in solitary confinement.

1. Rikers Island should be closed down
2. Solitary confinement should be ended.

We must be so principled in our calls for reform that we want them even for our enemies.

— Shaun King (@shaunking) June 4, 2019

I couldn’t agree more. This is one more example of the evils of progressive punitivism, which I discussed in this primer. No matter how many resistance-related hashtags are affixed to these expressions of joy, they are the opposite of revolution; rather than deeply upending the rationales of the punitive state, they consist merely of turning it around 180 degrees. Instead of torturing poor people of darker skin, we’ll torture rich people of lighter skin. This is not reform; it’s tribalism.

I’ve written two pieces on progressive punitivism so far. The first, based on my Not Your Typical Kavanaugh Opinion Piece, shows how some aspects of the #metoo movement feed into the most noxious aspects of progressive punitivism, namely the encouragemenet for people to marinate in victimization as a condition of being heard (forthcoming from JCRED). The second, based on this post, argues that the tendency to demonize everyone involved in failed criminal justice reform (particularly painting well-meaning people as racist) is ahistorical and harmful to the movement overall, and that it is much healthier for both academics and reformers to analyze people on their own terms (forthcoming from LSI). The third piece, which I’m working on now, is for the Punishment and Inequality conference at the University of Bologna. In this piece I try to unpack the intellectual roots of progressive punitivism and come to some surprising conclusions.

It turns out there is very little in the history of conflict and radical criminology that tackles the question, “whatever shall we do with the rich after the revolution?” Admittedly, much of the radical criminology paradigm consists of questioning the connection of crime with class; the oft-quoted maxim from Anatole France’s The Red Lily talks about how ‘[t]he law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.’ To criticize how the law applies to the poor is to implicitly question how it applies to the rich, because criminalization and severity get their meaning from relativity and context. Critical and radical criminologists have highlighted areas in which the rich commit crime with impunity–white collar crime, environmental crime, state crimes, etc.–but save for, say, the post-Enron outrage, there’s been very little to foreshadow the explosion of punitive sentiments on the left that we see today. Perhaps the exception is carceral feminism, which was foreshadowed in Catharine MacKinnon’s writing; she seems to support this aspect of the #metoo movement, opining here that the online outrage and excoriation campaigns we see are an outcome of the incompetence of formal criminal law in addressing sexual harassment. For an even more extreme example of the antecedents of carceral feminism, see this passage from Valerie Solanas’ SCUM manifesto:

SCUM will kill all men who are not in the Men’s Auxiliary of SCUM. Men in the Men’s Auxiliary are those men who are working diligently to eliminate themselves, men who, regardless of their motives, do good, men who are playing pall with SCUM. A few examples of the men in the Men’s Auxiliary are: men who kill men; biological scientists who are working on constructive programs, as opposed to biological warfare; journalists, writers, editors, publishers and producers who disseminate and promote ideas that will lead to the achievement of SCUM’s goals; faggots who, by their shimmering, flaming example, encourage other men to de-man themselves and thereby make themselves relatively inoffensive; men who consistently give things away — money, things, services; men who tell it like it is (so far not one ever has), who put women straight, who reveal the truth about themselves, who give the mindless male females correct sentences to parrot, who tell them a woman’s primary goal in life should be to squash the male sex (to aid men in this endeavor SCUM will conduct Turd Sessions, at which every male present will give a speech beginning with the sentence: `I am a turd, a lowly abject turd’, then proceed to list all the ways in which he is. His reward for doing so will be the opportunity to fraternize after the session for a whole, solid hour with the SCUM who will be present. Nice, clean-living male women will be invited to the sessions to help clarify any doubts and misunderstandings they may have about the male sex; makers and promoters of sex books and movies, etc., who are hastening the day when all that will be shown on the screen will be Suck and Fuck (males, like the rats following the Pied Piper, will be lured by Pussy to their doom, will be overcome and submerged by and will eventually drown in the passive flesh that they are); drug pushers and advocates, who are hastening the dropping out of men.

What does this radical program of punishment, excoriation, required groveling and ceremonial apologies resemble? Unsurprising answer: Communist China’s criminal law. While criminalization, tribunals, and harsh punishment were part and parcel of the cultural revolution, China didn’t actually have an official criminal code until 1979. The Maoist authorities had drafted one, but Mao believed it unwise to codify a criminal law that later might restrain the party. Still, these notions of criminal law as embedded in politics characterized the eventual legislation. As Donald Clarke and James Feinerman argue in Antagonistic Contradictions: Criminal Law and Human Rights in China, the question of what constitutes a crime was nebulous in the criminal code of Communist China, and highly dependent on the perpetrator’s location on the class food chain. As they explain:

The Criminal Law (CL) does not so much define which acts are punishable as prescribe what the sanctions shall be when relatively severe punishments are deemed in order. The definition of crime is accomplished outside the Criminal Law by reference to political exigencies or generally accepted standards of morality. There is little perceived danger in allowing government officials to impose their own standards of morality, since Chinese state ideology does not accept the legitimacy of multiple standards of morality. 

Consider, for example, the provision for analogy (Article 79 of the CL): a “crime” not stipulated in the CL (or elsewhere) may be punished according to the most nearly applicable article. This shows that if rules defining crime are “law,” then the very notion of “crime” is not a “legal” concept; the determination of whether a particular act constitutes a crime is something that must take place outside the CL. Thus, while the CL tells you what punishment to apply for a particular crime, it is often unhelpful in determining whether a crime has been committed. In this respect, the CL resembles the rules for punishment of Imperial China, which stipulated any number of punishable acts in great detail, but also contained provisions allowing for analogy and punishing “doing what ought not to be done.” 

The Special Part lists various crimes and their punishments. Pride of place goes to counter-revolutionary crimes, which are defined as “all acts endangering the People’s Republic of China committed with the goal of overthrowing the political power of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the socialist system” [but are very rare despite their textual prominence.] . . The other chapters in the Special Part cover crimes of endangering public security, undermining the socialist economic order, infringement of personal and democratic rights, property violation, disruption of the order of social administration, disruption of marriage and the family, and dereliction of duty and corruption. 

The Special Part is a relatively skimpy 103 articles. . . One reason for the relative simplicity of the Chinese CL is that the provision on analogy offers an escape hatch in case of imperfect or careless drafting. Another reason is that the CL is supplemented by numerous other pieces of special legislation either specifically criminalizing a certain act or prohibiting an act and providing vaguely that “where it constitutes a crime, criminal responsibility shall be affixed,” without providing any guidance as to under what circumstances the performance of a prohibited act would constitute a crime. Finally, it must be remembered that the CL is as much a political text as a legal one; its drafters were concerned with providing a legal basis for state action, not with worries about due process, and it was designed to be used by judicial and public security cadres with a low educational level. Although the late 1980s and early 1990s have seen a movement among the Chinese legal community to revise the wording of the Criminal Law in an attempt to make it technically more elegant, no revision has yet taken place.

Essentially, what Clarke and Feinerman are describing is a punishment system that relies on the sentiments of the communist order toward the offender to even make the decision whether a crime has been committed. A poor person stole bread? Revolutionary impetus. A rich person stole bread? Class criminal.

One possible (and reasonable) counterargument could be that all criminal codes are, covertly, Maoist “little red books” by virtue of differential enforcement. After all, isn’t a city ordinance that prohibits any person from sitting or lying on a city sidewalk, but yields fines only against poor, homeless people, exactly the same as a “political texts” that “impose [their] own standard of morality”? Well, of course they are. But the difference between these codes and the Maoist criminal code is the difference between covert and overt intent. The Maoist code explicitly declares its intent to focus on counterrevolutionaries.

So what’s worse, a law that purports to criminalize in a neutral, universal way, but is enforced in a way that targets members of a particular class, or a law that explicitly says that it addresses only members of a particular class? There’s something to be said for the latter: at least it’s honest, which means that if we dislike its overt targeting, we can work to change it. Differential enforcement, on the other hand, can work covertly, and remain undetected. But this rationale does not neatly address what happens in the context of progressive punitivism, for two main reasons.

First, the days in which the mainstream public was in the dark about differential enforcement are long gone. The disparities that critical criminologists have been studying for decades–racialized police activity, ideological bias in charging decisions, sentencing disparities for members of different races and classes–are all there in the open. We studied this stuff before it was cool, but now progressive Millennials are born with the Michelle Alexander playbook in hand. They have come of age, politically, against the backdrop of Ferguson; they have been reading excellent journalistic coverage of the criminal justice system and listening to podcasts about miscarriages of justice for years. Honestly, there’s not much difference now, in terms of the progressive consciousness, between laws that explicitly target the poor and laws that are facially egalitarian but differentially enforced. This is good news for criminologists–we’ve wanted everyone to know this forever, and finally, the combination of colleagues with a desire to address the mainstream and journalists who made it accessible has succeeded in injecting the realities of criminal justice administration into the mainstream conversation (this conversation could use a little, or actually a lot, of nuance, but we’ll turn to that later.)

Second, even with an overt policy, there has to be a desire to change it. If lawmakers and constituents are overall pleased with policies that support a particular political order and target people on the basis of their class affiliation, it will be quite difficult to introduce change. Regardless of whether the class/race/gender bias of law is overt or covert, the ability to move it in one direction or the other depends largely upon whether its targets are people that “we” (for whatever value of “we”) like or dislike.

Which leads me to conclude that, even though we can find Maoist, or radical feminist, antecedents to the appetite for punishing the rich/male/white that permeates progressive discourse, its most obvious intellectual and cultural legacy is… conservative discourse.

Conservatives and progressives don’t live on different planets. The American public (as well as the American academic scene) has experienced decades of exposure to punitive ideologies and policies, and these, as well as their legacies, are bound to leave imprints on social movements of all stripes. Criminal justice and punishment scholarship in the United States is steeped in this punitive legacy–and this is characteristic, as Naomi MurakawaElizabeth Hinton, and others tell us not only of Nixon and Reagan, but also of Democrat politicians. After all, as Jonathan Simon explains, no politician, of any stripe, wants to be perceived as “soft on crime.”

Decades of being steeped in a program of conservative punitiveness has taught both conservatives and progressives three important lessons. The first is that criminal justice is the only hammer in the toolbox, and therefore each and every problem must be a nail. If that’s how we have been solving the problems of “inner city delinquency” for years, why would we not welcome any bad behavior on the part of the wealthy and privileged with choruses of “lock him up”?

The second lesson is that it is normal to think of criminal justice as a tool for separating communities across identities. I’m sure I tell you nothing new when I remind you that, while 1 in 100 Americans is behind bars, that figure is much higher for particular segments of the American population: 1 in 9 young Black men is incarcerated, and 1 in 3 is under some form of correctional supervision.  Racial and class inequalities are found at every turn; in policing,  in criminal courtrooms,  and in sentencing,  to name just a few. Many criminal justice critics, in academia and in the activist realm, treat this overrepresentation not as a coincidence, but rather as part of a systemic project of crystallizing and enhancing inequalities. Is it any wonder that, against a backdrop of “walk all over the poor”, a non-imaginative response is, “walk all over the rich”?

The third lesson, which is perhaps the most painful, is that the quintessential way to get the talking stick in America is to be a victim. Just yesterday we learned that Tricia Meili, the Central Park jogger who was viciously assaulted and left for dead decades ago, is calling for a release of investigation materials in the cases of the Central Park Five, the five teenagers who were falsely accused of assaulting her. We know who did it: the responsible party is in prison, has confessed to the crime, and is tied to it via robust forensic evidence (the only person who is still confused about this is Trump). We have seen footage of the interrogations of the teenagers. Meili is owed compassion and support for her harrowing experiences, as well as admiration for her long recovery process. But why is she an authority on an event she has no memory of? That we award victims an attentive ear on such matters shows how victimization, or more accurately, a spectacle of suffering, is the qualification you need to be an authority on criminal justice in America. #BlackLivesMatter and #metoo have internalized these messages all too well: in the face of victim voices serving the conservative agenda, like the Tate family, Mark Klaas, and Dominick Dunne, is it any wonder that the progressive response is to put victimization and trauma at the forefront of its own struggle?

The problem with these non-imaginative responses, as Shaun King reminds us, is that progressive punitivism is, essentially, a little-changed version of the conservative punitivism playbook. Applauding the incarceration of a reviled man on solitary at Rikers has as much potential for enshrining the practices of solitary, and the conditions at Rikers, as was applauding the incarceration of the people that the progressive movement cares about in identical conditions. We can and should do better than this every day, but that takes imagination, and shaking off the paradigms shaped by decades of criminal injustice doesn’t come easy. Still, we have to try.

Barr v. Sessions: A Return to Cheap on Crime?

A short while ago I posted about the bipartisan enactment of the First Step Act, a bipartisan compromise bill offering evidence-based rehabilitation programming and early releases for nonviolent drug offenders. Harkening back to the pre-Trump era of cooperation, the animus behind this law is pragmatic, but I does have some important humanitarian provisions, such as the categorical prohibition of shackling pregnant women or women who have just given birth.

William Barr’s confirmation hearings yielded many interesting insights into his future as Attorney General. For me, one interesting moment was when Chuck Grassley (!!!) pressed Barr on his tough-on-crime record. The Brennan Center reports:

“Will you commit to fully implementing the FIRST STEP Act?” asked Sen. Chuck Grassley, a key champion of the law. 

“Yes, senator,” Barr responded. Barr said that when he was last attorney general in the early 1990s, the violent crime rate was high and prison sentences were short. The system had broken down, he said. Barr argued that the growth of the prison population helped bring crime down since then, something the Brennan Center strongly disputes. But he acknowledged that times have changed. 

“I have no problem with the approach of reforming the prison structure and I will faithfully implement the law.”

This excerpt is a real gem. First, note that the question comes from Grassley, not usually who you’d think of as a champion for the oppressed. Second, note that Barr does not just say he’ll uphold the law, but actually goes into the merits of the law and essentially makes the argument that times have changed.

As the Brennan Center reports elsewhere, Barr is no bleeding heart prison reformer himself. The exchange between him and Grassley is an exchange between two Republicans, which confirms that much of the spirit of Cheap and Crime is alive and well.

This makes Sessions’ tenure as Attorney General even more interesting as an outlier. When touring with Cheap on Crime, I met Vikrant Reddy, an interesting and sharp-minded thinker about criminal justice reform on the right side of the political map. When we met, Reddy was working for Right on Crime, a conservative think tank about which I wrote extensively in the book. Right on Crime was making the argument that economic sustainability and small government principles required trimming the criminal justice apparatus, calling a truce on the war on drugs, and considering programs for reducing imprisonment. He has since then changed affiliations and now works for the Koch institute as a Senior Fellow. When we met, I asked Reddy what he thought about the diversity of opinion about criminal justice within the Republican Party. He said something that I found very interesting.

There was a generational gap, Reddy explained, between “old-skool” Republicans, who came of age politically during the era of high crime rates between the 1960s and 1980s, and the newer generation of conservative politicians, who were representing constituencies that experienced much safer streets and communities. The latter group was much more open to political compromise, if only for the sake of financial prudence.

Sessions is definitely a card-carrying member of the former group of politicians. In his confirmation hearings, he referred to marijuana smokers as “bad people”, an approach woefully out of touch not only with empirical research but with public opinion across the political spectrum. In an era of reasonable Republicans invested in reform, the Trump administration had to look long and hard for the only war-on-drugs dinosaur left in the Republican Party, and in Sessions, they found this rare and dying breed, to the detriment of us all: Sessions proceeded immediately to instruct federal prosecutors  to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy, which the prosecutors themselves called him to recant.  He revoked the Obama-era moratorium on the use of private prisons and took part in various other nefarious criminal justice initiatives that could not be justified by humanism or by efficiency.

What is interesting about Barr is that he is not a younger politician. His record on criminal justice from the early days is appalling. And nonetheless, he has been able to look around him, notice that the world has changed, and assure Grassley that criminal justice reformers will find him cooperative and willing to listen to reason. I find a glimmer of hope in this. Old punitive dogs can, and do, learn new tricks sometimes.

Thanks to Jodi Short for our conversation about this.

Tonight: San Francisco DA Candidate Debate

San Francisco District Attorney Candidates Debate – Civil Rights and Criminal Justice Reform
With candidates Sharmin Bock, David Onek, George Gascon and Vu Trinh

Doors open at 6:30pm
762 Fulton Street

Sponsored by Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, ACLU-Northern California, African American Art & Culture Complex, Asian Law Caucus, Chinese for Affirmative Action, Citizen Hope, Equal Justice Society, Equal Rights Advocates, and Hastings Race and Poverty Law Journal

This event will be the first opportunity for all three of the major candidates for San Francisco District Attorney to engage in a dialogue with each other, leading civil rights advocacy organizations, and the community about critical issues in criminal justice and public safety policy.

Candidates will be asked to discuss topics such as the disproportionate impact of the criminal justice system on communities of color, alternatives to incarceration, immigration, police misconduct, criminal justice realignment under AB 109, and policies to promote reentry and reduce recidivism.

The leadership of the San Francisco District Attorney is essential in ensuring that the city’s criminal justice system is fair and equitable and fully respects civil rights. The San Francisco DA has also often played a critical leadership role in advocating for progressive and smart criminal justice policies statewide and nationwide.

With the recent Supreme Court case ordering a reduction of nearly 40,000 prisoners from California’s prison system and major changes at the state level re-aligning responsibilities for implementing public safety, the need for bold and innovative leadership on criminal justice policy is especially urgent.

We look forward to seeing you there. If you have questions for the candidates, please post them as a comment below.

Click here for the event flyer :​ebate_8.3.11.pdf

LA Times favors parole for youth LWOPs

Today’s LA Times carries this piece:,0,2931752.story subtitled, “Sara Kruzan’s case shows why juveniles should not sentenced to life without parole.”

The Times had previously written in favor of Sen. Yee’s narrowly-defeated SB 399 to change this policy statewide; today’s Times asks Governor Schwarzenegger to offer clemency, if only in this one extreme case.

My favorite quotes: “She has volunteered for dozens of rehabilitation programs and won awards for her participation and attitude. … The CYA felt that she should have been prosecuted as a juvenile rather than as an adult, which would have put her into a rehabilitation program from which she could have been freed by age 25 — seven years ago.”

Sentenced a minor to life behind bars with no chance of parole is a ghastly, inhumane, cruel practice.

Obama backing off strict crime policy

[Re-posted from POLITICO because: can you imagine replacing “Obama” with “Schwarzenegger” in this article? Nope, me neither, but it feels good to think about it…]

Obama backing off strict crime policy
by Josh Gerstein

For years, it was one of the GOP’s most potent political epithets — labeling a Democrat “soft on crime.”

But the Obama White House has taken the first steps in decades to move away from a strict lock-‘em-up mentality on crime — easing sentences for crack cocaine possession, launching a top-to-bottom review of sentencing policies and even sounding open to reviewing guidelines that call for lengthy prison terms for people convicted of child pornography offenses.

The moves — still tentative, to be sure — suggest that President Barack Obama’s aides are betting that the issue has lost some of its punch with voters more worried about terrorism and recession. In one measure of the new political climate surrounding the issue, the Obama administration actually felt free to boast that the new crack-sentencing bill would go easier on some drug criminals.

“The Fair Sentencing Act marks the first time in 40 years that Congress has reduced a mandatory minimum sentence,” said White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, who billed the new legislation as “monumental.”

Obama’s signing of long-debated legislation last month to reduce the disparity between prison sentences for crack and powdered cocaine is being hailed by some advocates as a watershed moment in the nation’s approach to criminal justice.

And even with a tough election looming, the Democratic Congress is showing a willingness to consider moving away from incarceration and toward rehabilitation and out-of-prison punishments that might have been attacked in the 1990s as the coddling of criminals.

At the urging of a conservative Democrat, Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia , the House passed a bill in July to create a federal commission to study criminal sentences. The measure cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier in the year with little resistance from Republicans.

“I think the political landscape around the issue is shifting and I think that will provide room for the administration to address some of these issues,” said Jennifer Bellamy of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Advocates point to several reasons for the shift toward a less-draconian approach to crime and for its retreat as a hot-button political issue. Crime rates are at some of the lowest levels in a generation. Stories of offenders who got decades behind bars for playing minor roles in drug operations have generated some sympathy in the public. Huge budget woes facing states and the federal government are raising doubts about policies that are causing prison populations and costs to go up.

In addition, Republicans who once accused Democrats of being soft on crime now accuse them of being soft on terrorists. As a result, tinkering with the way run-of-the-mill criminals are treated doesn’t seem to be the political third rail it once was.

Mary Price of Families Against Mandatory Minimums noted that the crack-disparity bill passed in Congress with remarkably little consternation. “I think other concerns have crowded out some of the hysteria around crime,” Price said.

“Republicans could have said, ‘If this passes, we’ll make this an issue in the midterms.’ Nobody said that,” Price observed. “This was not an issue for Republicans.”

While most of the Obama administration’s moves toward rolling back some of the harshest aspects of the war on crime have been tentative, some have been surprising. For instance, a little-noticed letter issued by the Justice Department in June urged a federal commission to review the sentencing guidelines for child pornography offenses — a review that many advocates say would almost certainly result in lowering the recommended sentences in such cases.

“They’re saying, essentially, that they want to level sentences in the middle, but necessarily, leveling in the middle is almost demanding that they bring the guidelines down,” said Doug Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University. “They’ve chosen language … saying we’re open to doing something that is not entirely tough.”

In another sign of the new climate, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a review of criminal sentencing policies soon after he came into office.

“Too much time has passed, too many people have been treated in a disparate manner and too many of our citizens have come to have doubts about our criminal justice system,” Holder said in June 2009. “We must be honest with each other and have the courage to ask difficult questions of ourselves and our system. We must break out of the old and tired partisan stances that have stood in the way of needed progress and reform. We have a moment in time that must be seized.”

The internal review endorsed lowering some crack sentences, something Obama had already promised to do, and publicly offered some vague suggestions on changes to mandatory minimums. Holder also issued a memo giving local federal prosecutors a bit more autonomy in charging decisions.

Another result of that review was a June letter that called for a new look at child porn sentences.

“The time is ripe for evaluating the current guidelines and considering whether reforms are warranted,” Jonathan Wroblewski, director of the Justice Department’s Office of Policy and Legislation, wrote to former judge and FBI director Bill Sessions, who heads the U.S. Sentencing Commission. “Consideration ought to be given to updating many aspects of the child pornography sentencing guidelines to better calibrate the severity and culpability of defendants’ criminal conduct with the applicable guideline sentencing ranges.”

Justice’s call for a review came as defense attorneys have been gaining traction with arguments that the guidelines and mandatory minimums set by Congress call for excessively long sentences. Some lawyers contend that defendants who briefly exchange child porn photos or video online can actually get longer sentences than those who seek to molest children.

The Justice Department has disputed those arguments in court, but federal judges have increasingly given sentences below the guidelines. An assistant federal public defender from Missouri , Troy Stabenow, said he thinks the department’s decision is basically a tactical move to stem the slide towards lower sentences.

“It’s just the logical thing they needed to do,” said Stabenow. He said the notion that any politician would wade into the subject on his own volition boggles the mind.

“I would think no sane politician who values being reelected would want to engage in this area,” Stabenow said. “I don’t think there’s any criminal group that yields a more visceral response than the child pornography group.”

A Justice Department spokeswoman stressed that the June letter didn’t endorse higher or lower sentences for child pornography.

“We asked the sentencing commission to comprehensively review and report on the state of federal sentencing and to explore whether systemic reforms are needed,” Justice spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said. “We also asked the commission to review the guidelines for child exploitation and fraud offenses, but did not recommend necessarily higher or lower penalties for either child exploitation [or] fraud offenses.”

One prominent advocate for long sentences in child pornography cases, Ernie Allen of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said he welcomes a review of the guidelines and why judges are often giving lower sentences. However, he said he would oppose any overall reduction in the guidelines and does not think that’s what Justice officials want.

“If that is the implication, clearly, we would differ with that,” Allen said. “These are crime scene photos that re-victimize the child in the photo over and over again, [but] I think both of us recognize that the crime guidelines are dated.”

Despite the tentative moves in the direction of lessening some sentences, there remain numerous signs that Obama and his aides recognize that the issue could still be politically damaging.

When Obama signed the crack disparity bill, only still photographers were allowed in and the president issued no formal statement. The Justice Department’s sentencing review group has indicated it has no plan to issue a formal report that could become a political football. And, 18 months into his presidency, Obama has yet to issue a single commutation or even a pardon to an elderly ex-con seeking to clear his record.

Some advocates note that the crack sentencing bill was not particularly ambitious: it reduced the crack/powder disparity from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. And it wasn’t retroactive, so some who were sentenced under mandatory minimum laws may not benefit.

Asked whether Obama might grant requests to commute the sentences of those who would have gotten less punishment if they committed their crimes today, an administration official said the crack-disparity bill “reflected Congress’s judgment that the law should not be retroactive, [and] the president believes that the Fair Sentencing Act will go a long way toward ensuring that our sentencing laws are tough, consistent and fair.”

The official also downplayed the notion that Obama might offer some kind of blanket clemency for earlier crack-cocaine offenders, saying that “as a general matter, the president agrees with the Department of Justice’s long-held view that commutation is an extraordinary remedy that should only be granted in extraordinary circumstances.”

But activists are watching Obama on the issue. “Retroactivity will be the next battle,” Price said. “It would be cruelly ironic for us to take lessons learned from those who are currently serving, change the law for people going forward and then say, ‘OK, the accident of the calendar you are condemned to serve much longer than people who, because of your experience, are getting out sooner.’”

In the heat of the presidential campaign, Obama sent mixed signals on crime. In the primary, he differed with Hillary Clinton by endorsing shortened sentences for some crack offenders already in jail. As the general election neared, he tacked to the right of the Supreme Court by criticizing the court’s 5-4 decision barring the use of the death penalty for child rapists who don’t kill their victims.

Berman said he thinks Obama and his aides can’t fully break with President Bill Clinton’s approach of trying to look as tough or even tougher than Republicans on crime.

“Obama wants to do something, I think, big on criminal justice and I think he’s absolutely afraid to,” Berman said. “Democrats are right to continue to fear tough-on-crime demagoguery. The lessons of Clinton continues to resonate. … This really is, inevitably, low-priority, high-risk kind of stuff.”

Obama also faces one factor Clinton did not: race. While 58 percent of federal inmates arewhite, Berman said some Americans are sure to have the perception that an African-American president is aiding criminals of his own race.

“Whether consciously or subconsciously, everyone understands that the first black president has to tread particularly cautiously in this area,” Berman said.

Portugal Decriminalized All Drugs; Drug Use Dropped

As of this week, it’s been one year since the Cato Institute published its land report “Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies,” authored by Glenn Greenwald. The report examines eight years of Portugal’s drug policy: decriminalization of possession of all substances.

Here in America, last week the Providence Journal (the news source of record for the state of Rhode Island) took a related stance. The editorial board called for, not decriminalization, but taxation and regulation of all substances. The editorial argues, “Even if legalization were to increase drug use, that risk is overshadowed by the benefits. Crime would drop in our streets as dealers lose their livelihood, and users don’t have to rob others to support their habit. Governments can regulate the drugs for purity and collect taxes on their sale.”

However, the Cato report found that Portugal’s total decriminalization actually led to declines both in drug usage rates and in HIV infection rates. People found in possession of drugs are sent to a panel of a psychologist, a social worker, and a legal adviser to consider treatment and rehabilitation options. For the short version, read the TIME Magazine summary. This usage decline suggests that the public safety and economic benefits of drug policy reform would not merely offset harms of any increase in drug use, but rather, represent independent public policy gains.

Two Bites at the Apple: The Power of Suspending Imposition of a Sentence

Dr. Aviram has graciously permitted me to post my thoughts on one aspect of the criminal justice system that I came across in the course of a recent externship. In one particular case before our court, a trial court judge suspended imposition of the defendant’s sentence. Although it was not the subject of the defendant’s appeal, I was fascinated by the process and felt it shed light on a Judge’s role and the power of the criminal justice system. Here is how the process works in a hypothetical where I have changed the facts and names in the case:


18-year old Adam Smith went out drinking late one night with a friend. After some heavy drinking, they take some cocaine Smith’s friend brought along. Intoxicated and high on drugs, they decided to throw fruit at cars from a walkway on an overpass. One orange seriously dented the front hood of a police officer’s vehicle as the officer was finishing her shift for the night. The two friends began laughing, but realized it was now time to run. When the police officer caught up to them, Smith’s friend immediately gave himself up but Smith defiantly resisted and tried to punch the police officer, striking her left shoulder and forcing the police officer to use her police taser.

On the advice of his public defender, Smith entered a guilty plea before Judge Foltz, known for her cautious leniency towards defendants who admit their crimes and save the taxpayers the expense of a long trial. At sentencing, Smith insisted that his crimes that night were childish indiscretions. He told Judge Foltz that a few days before the evening in question, he found out his father was cheating on his mother and that they would be getting a divorce. Depressed and in need of “self medication” he went out and tried drugs for the first time, and made a series of poor decisions because his friend thought cocaine would make him feel better.

Smith maintained that he was simply rebelling against the situation when he went out and did not know how to handle himself. His acts were the unfortunate byproduct of not being in his right state of mind. He promised it would never happen again. Smith’s parents testified on his behalf, and lamented that really, this incident was all their fault. Judge Foltz was reluctant to take Smith at his word, but she sympathized with his argument that it was a youthful indiscretion and found no evidence that Smith was a “bad apple.” To avoid letting him get off “scott free” for what are serious offenses but also to not unnecessarily institutionalize an otherwise good kid and ruin his prospects of college, she told Smith that she would suspend imposition of his sentence and place him on probation for a period of three years if he made restitution for any damage. Only days before his three year probation was to be over, Smith robbed an elderly woman at gunpoint at an ATM.

Now Smith went before Judge Holmes, known for his no-nonsense approach to criminal defendants. Because Judge Foltz suspended imposition of Smith’s prior sentence, Judge Holmes gets to determine the sentence for all three crimes: the first two crimes (vandalism and assaulting a police officer), as well as the subsequent crime, armed robbery. Holmes throws the book at Smith, giving him the statutory maximum for all of the crimes, including a mandatory 10-year sentence enhancement for using a gun during his robbery, giving him a total of 25 years in jail. Smith now wished he hadn’t gotten off “scott free” in front of Judge Foltz, and simply received a reduced sentence.

It’s easy to see the downside to a defendant where a Judge suspends imposition of a sentence. A subsequent Judge will sentence the defendant knowing what crime the defendant went on to commit, and that inevitably colors a Judge’s perception of the defendant’s earlier offense. Judge Holmes looked at the mitigating circumstances of the original offenses differently from Judge Foltz, and rather than seeing them as youthful indiscretions, saw a young man committing crimes of escalating seriousness who did not take advantage of the break Judge Foltz gave him. Holmes likely felt that leniency would not do Smith any favors, who did not seem to learn from his mistake when he avoided prison time following Smith’s first encounter with the justice system. Moreover, Judge Holmes was forced to make his decision about the subsequent crime while carefully examining the details of a prior crime necessary to formulate his sentence, making the Judge less sympathetic about any mitigating circumstances of the subsequent offense as well.

There’s an obvious objection to this tool, which is that the subsequent crime cannot be considered as part of the sentencing of the original offense and vice-versa. Strictly speaking, they can’t. But a Judge probably cannot escape what he or she knows about the defendant’s subsequent and prior conduct, and thus whatever mental barriers which have been erected to compartmentalize the analysis are likely to be ineffective. A judge may simply be careful to not articulate her sentence for the earlier offense in terms of what happened in the subsequent crime.

The constitutionality of statutes which authorize judge’s to suspend imposition of a sentence has already been affirmed. Moreover, it’s not clear eliminating such a power would necessarily change the outcome. In Peterson v. Dunbar 355 F.2d 800 (1966), a court affirmed the statute granting the right to Judge’s to suspend imposition of a sentence and noted: “If there be any merit in appellant’s argument, the obvious alternative, still available to the judge, is to start at the top instead of at the bottom– to impose the maximum sentence at the outset, suspend its execution and subsequently vacate it if probation is successful, or, should probation be revoked, reduce it to the extent, if any, then felt suitable.”

From a Judge’s perspective, suspending imposition of a crime is preferable to granting a lesser sentence. Such a tool allows a Judge to distinguish between a “career criminal” and a someone who committed a “youthful indiscretion” while preserving the system’s ability to revisit the issue in light of subsequent conduct. It is likely that the tool allows a Judge to grant mercy more often by reducing the cost of leniency and allows a more accurate sentence in a subsequent proceeding because of superior information. Moreover, with the prospect of an even harsher sentence the second time around, it can serve as a greater deterrent to subsequent crime. Of course, this assumes the criminal mind rationally calculates his or her behavior based upon the length of sentence.

Nevertheless, suspending imposition of a sentence may satisfy both the DA-minded and PD-minded alike by keeping one-time offenders out of jail but increasing the sentence of repeat players. Many lawyers would appreciate the increase in discretion such a tool affords a judge, although others might fear the punitive aspects of its application. But on the whole, the ability to suspend imposition of a sentence increases the discretion of a Judge and therefore reduces the power of other institutional actors like prosecutors who might vigorously oppose leniency under any other circumstance.

It’s unclear whether suspending imposition of a sentence increases prison time on an aggregate basis or reduces it. If I were trying to generate a hypothesis on this point, I would start by determining how many repeat players are in the system. If the numbers of repeat players are extremely high, then suspending imposition of a sentence is likely to increase prison overcrowding on the whole. Additionally, I would look to what kinds of crimes Judge’s typically apply this tool towards to see how much it reduces prison sentences. In my hypothetical the bulk of the defendant’s prison sentence is still coming from the armed robbery and the mandatory sentence enhancement.
In any event, it’s a fascinating tool and has important implications for sentencing, overcrowding, and judicial economy.